11. 09. 2018. 13:57

Roy Jacobsen: Nostalgia's a scar that's good to scratch

Roy Jacobsen, the Norwegian author of The Unseen was one among many foreign guests at the Margó Festival of Literature and Book Fair autumn 2018 in Budapest. Here's Jacobsen on Scandinavia, sentimentality, nationalism and man vs. nature in an interview with Gergő Melhardt.

When the actor, Barna Kelemen Bányai, was reading a few pages from your novel, The Unseen during the talk at Margó Fesztivál, you were smiling, almost laughing at times.

Yes! I thought “I didn’t write this. What is this?” But actually it’s a very pleasant experience to have your work translated. And I have no relationship whatsoever to the Hungarian language, so it’s amazing to listen to it.

What kind of connections do you have to Hungarian culture or literature?

I was here in Budapest during the Cold War, in 1976 or ’78. I spent a week here with my wife and it was very interesting. One of my best friends was Péter Esterházy, who I met in Iceland in 1993. We stayed close and we met every time he came to Oslo or to the Göteborg Book Fair or to Frankfurt. We read each other’s books, everything. I also helped him get translated into Norwegian because at first, he didn’t sell very well.

What’s your relationship with your works in other languages?

It’s quite intimate. I have good contact with nearly every translator. I think this has become very normal for every writer, we are online, if the translator stumbles upon something that they don’t understand, they write and ask, of course. But after four-five quite identical emails and lines of questions, I started to make up a list of words that are strange in my book because they’re archaic or they’re in a special dialect which is exotic even for people in Norway today. So now I have a list with 300 words that I send to every translator. And it’s very interesting to see that they manage to find some maritime connections in nearly all languages. I think Vera [Vera-Ágnes Pap, the Hungarian translator], has done a really good job, though I can’t really judge it. She’s actually been in the north of Norway on a fishing boat, and she’s spoken to the people, she has heard their languages. She also has a friend here in Hungary who’s a linguist and also a fisherman at Balaton Lake. So they managed to get the terminology together.

These words and terms in your novel for species of fish or fishing methods etc. really sound distant.

They should. They’re exotic. But you read a novel to read about people, to read about the conditions of mankind, not about species of fish. It’s interesting for me to have the contrast between something that seems very strange and something that’s familiar. The familiar aspect is, of course, that you are also a person, someone who can put themselves emotionally in the characters’ places, and who can react to the other and the things you recognise as genuinely human.

I have the impression people here, in eastern or central Europe have a homogenous and maybe simplified view of Scandinavian countries, as they all look the same: cold, rich, everything is neat, clean, in order. We know Scandinavian crime and Ikea. It’s a cliché of course.

Culturally there are a lot of similarities because of the language and history. The borders were fluent during the Viking and middle ages, not like here in Central Europe, people could cross, intermarry, move here and there and work, fight or whatever they wanted to do. But Finland, Norway and Iceland have always been colonies, Sweden and Denmark have been central powers. So we have a special brotherhood between the Finns, Norwegians and Icelanders. We like to mock the Swedish and the Danes. As a colony, you get robbed of your treasures. Fish, for instance. The fish that were caught on the coast of Norway were worth probably a hundred times the oil we’ve explored during the last forty years but nothing of these treasures stayed in Norway, they were exported, from the 12th century until 1860. So it’s quite a new thing that now we keep the wealth for ourselves. Previously the people stayed poor, even though they had created a lot, a lot of wealth. Sweden was something different, they were much more like Central Europe, a central power, and so was Denmark.

Do you think literature – and more specifically the kind of biographical, sociographical literature that you also write – can make these differences more visible?

Well, I want to write about people, whether they are Norwegian or Swedish or Icelandic – I don’t care. Of course, I have to take into consideration the aspect of culture. We have a very strong narrative tradition, a way of telling stories, which comes from the Icelandic sagas and has a mythological basis. The way to tell a story is a very strong tradition in Scandinavia, and it’s common in all four countries, except for Finland which has a totally different heritage with Kalevala. So whether you tell a joke or an anecdote, you write a novel, a theatre piece or you make a movie, there are some similarities, because your way of telling the stories is typically Nordic. We like a story, we like something to develop. Something has to happen. Writing about sitting still and thinking about a feeling, about how I am today, and some quasi-deep philosophising about your own self – this has never been the real fashion of Norwegian literature. And this tradition limits us. As a writer you should distance yourself from it and try to invent something new. But to do that you have to be conscious of these traditions and what they do to you.

You talked about showing exotic things to the readers, and almost everything from Scandinavian countries is being sold to us as exotic, mysterious, cold. If you look at the promotion of The Unseen you can see the same. What do you think about this?

It’s hard to comment on it. I always hear that we are very melancholic. And then I come here, and this looks like a much more melancholic culture than ours. The mystery is, of course, a cliché. If you go to the countryside in Norway and you meet people, it will probably take a while before you connect with them, they will be secretive, a bit skeptical, even though the first thing they ask will be “who are you?” and “where do you come from?”, they won’t let you in, it will take a while. They will be very straightforward and very reserved at the same time. Most people who come to Norway tells this story at least. But the world is changing. So much has happened during my lifetime, which is only 60 years, there were such huge changes that we start to forget. New rich, for instance, when all of a sudden you become rich, that’s not always a nice sight. You start to forget, pretend, you start to believe that you are something. To be born in Norway today is like winning the lottery. You take everything for granted, you don’t know and you don’t think about the fact that you are walking on your grandparents’ work.

But these changes are not bad. If you are wealthy as we are now, to pretend that you want to be poor again is stupid. It’s bullshit. That only tells that you don’t know what poverty is. Poverty is terrible. Poverty means that you can’t be educated, you can’t fulfill yourself, all your dreams will die, you can’t marry who you want. We’re not talking about food, we’re talking about the incarceration of the human being because that’s poverty. But I think there are a lot of values that may have disappeared. First of all, respect for other people who don’t live like you, compassion with people who don’t live like you, who are not as successful as you are. And there are aspects of solidarity. But we have a very egalitarian society which is also based on trust. You trust that the system works. And it still does so the trust has not gone. And everything has a price. I am not to be the moral judge of this. I am just a piano player. I am just trying to understand and describe it, to reflect on it.

From The Unseen, I could feel some nostalgia for the old community. Do you think you are nostalgic?

Well, everyone is nostalgic. But it’s probably a false feeling. For instance, my mother had a terrible childhood but she always spoke very nicely about it. She wanted to go back. But that was rubbish, you know. The concept of beauty also spans from your childhood, it’s when you get in touch with beauty and comfort and what’s good in life, and that infests itself in your brain. That’s your measurement, your instrument later in life. That is the hidden nostalgia, you don’t long back to the actual situation but to the time when you learned the feeling of beauty, goodness and comfort. In Ancient Greek the name for nostalgia means a scar that’s good to scratch. It’s good to scratch the scar.

Is it good to hurt yourself?

Is it not? Anyway, that puts it into perspective. Nostalgia is also a very common, very normal human phenomenon, you see it in politics, you see it in people who are voting, for instance, the desire to get something back that they think they can get back. I mean the extremely conservative people who vote against everything that’s new. I guess we don’t have this in politics in the same dimension as you here, but the same principles that I’m describing are working all over the world. And the case is similar with sentimentality, in every kind of nationalism there is this false sentimentality with group-thinking, that I belong to the right group, I belong to the people who are similar to me, who speak my language, who think like I do and look like I do, they are my brotherhood, my group, and then I tend to look down on everybody else. It’s the same everywhere. Everywhere. We are all tribes. Man is tribal. So if you want to be an intellectual it is important that you should at least reflect about this.

In an interview you said The Unseen is, amongst many other things, about the conflict of man and nature. Do you think it’s really a “versus”? Aren’t people part of nature?

Well, it’s both. But if you want to experience it, go to an island like that one and spend December there…

I wouldn’t survive.

There’s your answer. Man versus nature. And of. They live by nature, they live versus nature, they live in nature, they also enjoy the comfort of nature. That’s probably the aspect you found so nostalgic. In summertime when the contrasts are so visible and so dominating you can have a day when it’s so beautiful, the mountains with snow on them, the sea is still, you can hear all the birds, you can enjoy the beauty that God created on the first day. And then the next day there’s a tornado, you can’t hear your own voice, you can’t stand up straight. So it’s both! These people are living off the sea and working with the earth. Nature gives and nature takes. That’s the contrast that you are not exposed to in a city like this.

I think that due to climate change and other global challenges these days we’re starting to realize that we aren’t against nature, but are in fact a part of it, interconnected with it and responsible for it. There was the separation “man vs. nature” in everybody’s minds from the 19th century onwards but it might be changing now.

Yes, it’s starting to get there. I think most Norwegians today have a very close relationship to nature, they dream about nature, they spend every weekend out in the woods, walking in the mountains, every Norwegian has a cottage somewhere. Probably it’s been a short time since we left nature and became citizens of the city. I think it’s being realized by more and more people that we are actually an integrated part of this planet, and that gives us more responsibility to take care of it. Not Donald Trump, though, but many of us are sensible inhabitants of Earth.

So can we read The Unseen as a parable, as a moral example on how to live in nature?

Of course. You can read it as a warning. And you can read it as a manual. When the next catastrophe comes, the light goes out and we all have to go back to nature, you can read this book and learn how to take care of yourself, to “survival with style”.

You wrote the biography of a former Norwegian prime minister. If you could choose, who would you want to write your biography?

Nobody. God. Maybe. The only truthful biography about me would be written by God. I have so many secrets. My books altogether in the library, that’s my biography. On my gravestone, it should be written: “He tried”. I won’t even want to have “He tried his best” because you can never do your best. But “he tried”.




Jacobsen's novel The Unseen / A Láthatatlanok is available in Hungarian here at Scolar Publishing in Vera-Ágnes Pap's translation.

Gergő Melhardt